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Pershing Park is a 1.76-acre, trapezoid-shaped urban park in Washington, D.C., bordered by Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th, 15th, and E streets NW. Identified as Square 226 and intended for private development in the original L’Enfant and Ellicott plans of 1791 and 1792, the site of the future Pershing Park contained a mix of commercial buildings by the start of the twentieth century. Acquired by the federal government in 1910, Square 226 was cleared in 1930 to improve site lines of the adjacent federal buildings whose presence increasingly defined the character of Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1938, the National Park Service took over the site, but it would be several decades before anything resembling a park was finally constructed.
In 1960, Square 226 was formally dedicated as Pershing Square, in memory of John J. Pershing, the World War I commander promoted to General of the Armies of the United States after the war’s end. President John F. Kennedy initiated a push for redevelopment, appointing a council on Pennsylvania Avenue improvements. A 1964 council report guided much of the subsequent two decades of design development discussion. The park was planted under Lady Bird Johnson’s city beautification program circa 1965, but it remained essentially a traffic island until a pair of separate but coordinated projects were completed in 1981.
Architect Wallace K. Harrison had been working on a Pershing memorial for the site since 1956, but he revised his design significantly after the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Corporation (PADC) assumed responsibility for the redevelopment of Pershing Square as part of its 1974 plan to enhance the streetscape and urban experience of the entire Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. As finally completed in the northeast portion of the square, Harrison’s memorial consists of small plaza defined by two mahogany granite walls that frame a bronze statue of Pershing by sculptor Robert White.
The remainder of the small square was designed by M. Paul Friedberg and Partners with Jerome Lindsey Associates, and was intended as an urban oasis. The PADC had originally commissioned Friedberg to design the adjacent Freedom Plaza site on Pennsylvania Avenue, with the firm of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown assigned to Pershing Park, but during an internal design process they switched sites. Friedberg wanted to break from the usual design of the capital city’s urban parks with broad lawns and radiating paths. His design called for removing the park from the city by sinking the plaza below street grade and enclosing it in a perimeter of trees.
As completed, visitors entered the park from one of the four corners of the site. Only the northern edge of the park along Pennsylvania Avenue is open to the street, due to the low berm around the south, east, and west edges. Granite terracing and amphitheater-style seating built into the lawn around the pool enhances the park’s atmosphere of sanctuary. A variety of custom and standard seating, including moveable and stationary furniture, are featured around the park. The movable chairs, in particular, became a hallmark of Friedberg’s park designs.
Soon after the park opened in May 1981, the firm of Oehme, van Sweden and Associates redesigned the plantings so that the site would be more inviting at pedestrian scale, with year-round character rather than the structured planters and evergreen foliage that had predominated the Friedberg design. As part of this redesign, river birches replaced the original paper birches, which were vulnerable to heat of the city and to disease, and new water plantings were added to attract ducks to the pond. The following year, in 1982, the National Wilderness Foundation donated a bronze sculpture, The Bex Eagle by Lorenzo Ghiglieri, to commemorate the centenary of the bald eagle. The sculpture sits on a granite pedestal on the west end of the site.
The park flourished for two decades as a refuge in the mist of official and touristic Washington, with its central sunken plaza and fountain used as a pond in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, many of the park’s mechanical systems began to fail and by 2007, the pool and fountain were shut down. Though the hardscape remained largely intact, park maintenance and rehabilitation were largely deferred. In 2014, Congress designated Pershing Park the site of a new National World War I Memorial. When, and if, this memorial is completed it will largely obliterate the Friedberg design. In the meantime, park is open year round and continues to be administered by the National Park Service.
Birnbaum, Charles. “Pershing Square Park.” In The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C.Washington, DC: American Society of Landscape Architects, 2012.
Luebke, Thomas E., Editor. Civic Art: A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.
“Pershing Park,” Washington, D.C. Historic American Buildings Survey, n.d. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS DC,WASH,628-).
Sherp, Leonard. “Pershing Park.” Landscape Architecture Magazine(March 1993): 52-54.
Robinson, Judith H., Sophie Cantell, Tim Kerr, “Pennsylvania Avenue Historic District,” Washington, D.C. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 2007. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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